New research from a team of cognitive neurology experts at Northwestern University has found a possible indicator of Alzheimer's disease in people as young as age 20, possibly allowing scientists to identify the mental health disorder much earlier than ever anticipated. The study, published March 2, 2015 in the journal Brain, found accumulations of amyloids – which have long been associated with Alzheimer's – in young participants decades before they were expected to begin forming. The findings could be used to identify this hallmark warning sign of Alzheimer's decades before neuron degeneration occurs, allowing individuals to make appropriate long-term lifestyle changes to help prevent the onset of the disease.
"Researchers found amyloid accumulation in young adults."
Since Alzheimer's disease has traditionally been associated with aging, there has been less research done on young adults. The team believes that amyloid clumps build up over time and eventually cause the death of neurons, causing Alzheimer's disease. Researchers examined the basal forebrains of three groups of deceased participants: 13 individuals age 20 to 66 who had normal cognitive function, 21 individuals with Alzheimer's age 60 to 95 and 16 older individuals without dementia age 70 to 99.
The team found that toxic clumps called amyloid oligomers began forming in young adulthood and continued to accumulate with age, which is theorized to eventually lead to Alzheimer's disease. In time, these clumps grow large enough to cause degenerative neurological damage, but scientists still have several theories as to the exact cause of why the neurons die.
"Discovering that amyloid begins to accumulate so early in life is unprecedented," said Changiz Geula, research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the study's lead investigator, in a news release. "This is very significant. We know that amyloid, when present for long periods of time, is bad for you."
"This points to why these neurons die early," Geula continued. "The small clumps of amyloid may be a key reason. The lifelong accumulation of amyloid in these neurons likely contributes to the vulnerability of these cells to pathology in aging and loss in Alzheimer's."
Understanding how amyloids affect neurons will be a pivotal point as Alzheimer's research moves forward. Considering there is no current cure for this mental health disorder, finding earlier methods of preventative Alzheimer's treatment will be integral to public health.